To Travel or Not to Travel

The chilly wind created by the speed of the boat whipped through the coat, sweater, and longsleeve shirt I wore, interrupting my thoughts on the impact my trip had on my carbon footprint. Only two other tourists stayed on the upper deck as the boat wound its way through a fjord in western Norway, near Bergen. The sun caught the top of every small wave, creating an expanse of shimmering water between evergreen-coated mountains. We were heading toward Mostraumen Strait on a popular tourist cruise in the Hordaland region.

From the tourist cruise to Mostraumen Strait.

The fjord was a deep and narrow body of water. Norway’s fjords formed during the last ice age over 10,000 years ago. Glaciers carved U-shaped valleys in coastal areas that were later filled with water as sea levels rose. The same process created fjords around the world in places such as Alaska, New Zealand, and Patagonia. 

Norway has one of the longest coastlines in the world at 58,133 kilometers, which has influenced Norwegian culture. Many of Bergen’s biggest tourist attractions are defined by their relationship with the sea. Some of the highlights of my time in Bergen were visiting the Norway Fisheries Museum, where I learned about the history of Norway’s hefty cod fishing industry, and hiking up to spectacular views over the fjords. Many tourists know of Bergen, Norway’s second largest city, as the gateway to the fjords and visit it specifically to see them, myself included.  

View from a hiking trail.

This summer, I was one of the millions of visitors Norway receives each year when I spent six days exploring Bergen and its surrounding fjords. A thought I was never able to fully escape during the course of my vacation touring Norway’s gorgeous, glacially-shaped landscape was whether the choices that led to me standing on the upper level of a ferry boat admiring the scenery were contributing to the destruction of modern-day glaciers that act on current landscapes.

On the way to Mostraumen Strait.

Retracing the steps that brought me to that boat reveals a long trail of emissions; one transatlantic flight into Paris, another quick flight into Bergen, a train into the city from the airport, and the boat ride itself are among the resource-consuming means of transport I used to reach the fjords.

The downside to travel is obvious: flights are among the most carbon-intensive activities an individual can possibly undertake. A 2016 study showed that about 3 square meters of Arctic sea ice area are lost for every metric ton of CO2 emissions. A flight from New York to Los Angeles, for example, results in the loss of 32 square feet of sea ice. Another study shows that the average American’s emissions will cause the deaths of two people in the future. 

But there are benefits to travel. Visiting new places has been shown to increase creativity and foster a stronger sense of self, while reducing stress and feelings of depression. Spending time abroad pushes people to leave their comfort zones and fosters a greater appreciation for the world outside of the familiar.

View over Byfjorden, Bergen.

One path away from the conundrum created by the conflicting pros and cons of travel is the purchase of carbon offsets. Carbon offsets aim to compensate for the emissions released over the course of, for instance, air travel by reducing an equivalent or greater amount of emissions elsewhere. Offsets can take the form of forestry projects or energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. To successfully counter emissions, offsets need to meet three criteria. They must have additionality—they need to be an action that would not have taken place if the money had not been received from the offset. They cannot have leakage—they must result in a net reduction of emissions. Lastly, they cannot be undone in the future—they must be permanent.

Some airlines like Qantas, KLM, and Austrian Airlines have programs in place to allow passengers to pay to offset their emissions. Third-parties like Gold Standard also exist to offset past emissions or to offset emissions created when flying with companies without such programs. Such programs place the culpability and responsibility to act on the passenger rather than the company that is producing the emissions and allows airlines to avoid implementing concrete emission-reduction measures.

The inconsistency of individual action led to the development of another approach: the UN Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) is designed to hold airlines accountable by requiring that they offset emissions from international flights that emit over 2020 levels of emissions. CORISA, which comes into effect in 2021, contains many loopholes, though, and is voluntary for its first six years, leading some experts to doubt its efficacy.

A small boat on one of the fjords around Bergen.

Carbon offsets seem like an imperfect way to temporarily address the emissions created by air travel. For the kind of travel that brings us to the places that make life worth living like going on a visit to family and friends or for essential business travel, investing in offsets is better than doing nothing. When offsets become a justification for extra journeys that would not have been undertaken without a belief in the remedying powers of offsets, their benefits are outweighed by the harm inflicted by greater quantities of greenhouse gases entering the atmosphere and by the uncertainty of their efficacy.

Travelling, whether it is long or short distance, for business or pleasure, whether it is by plane, train or automobile, is part of the way we live. It fosters connections between people both by forging new links and allowing us to maintain ties to the past. If we were to give up travel in an increasingly globalized world, we would be giving up big and small life experiences that cannot be had by staying in one place. 

If the planes, trains, and boats I took to reach the fjords were powered by biofuels or renewable energy there would be far fewer emissions from my travels: the development of cleaner transportation would allow us to continue exploring new places without the ecological impact of today’s carbon intensive travel. Norway has become a leader in testing electric planes and predicts that by 2025 electric passenger flights could become a reality. Two-seater, all-electric planes are currently being used to train pilots by a Norweigian aviation firm. Until a large-scale shift becomes possible, Norway is imposing biofuel requirements on airlines operating within its borders to cut down on emissions. These initiatives demonstrate that there are options out there that may allow us to continue reaping the benefits of travel while minimizing the harm it inflicts on the people and places we are drawn to visit.

All images were taken by Elza Bouhassira. You can find her on Instagram here.

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Rising Temperatures Have Doubled Himalayan Glacier Melt—Study

The Himalayas have a powerful impact on the lives of the people who live near them: They have cultural and religious sway, they play a role in determining regional weather patterns, and they feed major rivers like the Indus, the Ganges, and the Tsangpo-Brahmaputra that millions rely on for freshwater.

A new study published in the journal Science Advances by Ph.D candidate Joshua Maurer of Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory concludes that glaciers in the Himalaya melted twice as quickly from 2000 to 2016 than they did from 1975 to 2000. “This is the clearest picture yet of how fast Himalayan glaciers are melting over this time interval, and why,” said Maurer.

Walter Immerzeel, a professor in the University of Utrecht’s department of geosciences, told GlacierHub that “the novelty lies in the fact that they go back until 1975.” He said that scientists already knew “quite well” what the mass balance rates were for the last twenty years or so, but that looking further back and over a wider area provided interesting new information.

Spiti Valley, which means “The Middle Land,” is located in the northern Indian province of Himachal Pradesh in the Himalayas. 
Source: beagle17/Creative Commons

Maurer and his co-authors examined ice loss along a 2,000-kilometer-long transect of the Himalayas, from western India eastwards to Bhutan. The study area includes 650 of the largest glaciers in the Himalaya and confirms the results of previous studies conducted by researchers who looked at the rate of mass loss in the Himalaya. 

The new study makes a major contribution by indicating that regional warming is responsible for the increase in melting. The researchers were able to determine this because mass loss rates were similar across subregions despite variations in other factors like air pollution and precipitation that can also accelerate melting.

Immerzeel agreed with the findings. “It is mostly temperature change driving the mass balances,” he said. “It can be locally enforced by black carbon or modulated by precipitation changes, but the main driving force is a rise in temperature.” 

The analysis was conducted using images from declassified KH-9 Hexagon spy satellites which were used by US intelligence agencies during the Cold War. The satellites orbited Earth between 1973 and 1980, taking 29,000 images that were kept as government secrets until relatively recently when they were declassified, creating a cornucopia of data for researchers to comb through.

Maurer and his co-authors used the images to build models showing the size of the glaciers when the images were created. The historical models were then compared to more recent satellite images to determine the changes that occurred over time. Only glaciers for which data were available during both time periods were included in the study.


A diagram of a KH-9 Hexagon satellite that was used to create the images used in Maurer’s study. 
(Source: National Reconnaissance Office)

The new study received widespread media attention. National Geographic, CNN, the New Yorker, and The Guardian, among other major publications, highlighted the study’s conclusion that mass loss in Himalayan glaciers has doubled in the last forty years.

Tobias Bolch, a glaciologist at the University of St Andrews, told GlacierHub the findings should be approached with caution. “The statement about the doubling of the mass loss after 2000 compared to the period 1975-2000 should be formulated with much more care.”

“[Scientists],” he continued, “need to be very careful presenting results about Himalayan glaciers and should communicate them correctly specifically after the IPCC AR4 error, and the wrong statement about the rapid disappearance of Himalayan glaciers.”

Bloch is referring to an error that occurred in 2007, when the IPCC included in its Fourth Assessment Report an inaccurate statement predicting that all Himalayan glaciers would be gone by 2035.

“It is a promising data set, but due to its nature there are large data gaps which need to be filled which makes the data uncertain,” Bolch said.

He added that there is “clear evidence” that mass loss has accelerated in the Himalaya.

A recent report by the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development, a regional intergovernmental organization in Nepal working on sustainable development in mountains, predicts that the Himalayas could lose 64 percent of their ice by the year 2100.

Maurer’s study examines only past melting from 1975 to 2016.  ICIMOD’s study provides additional dimension to Maurer’s results. 

A stretch of the Indus River. 
(Source: arsalank2/ Creative Commons )

The large amount of melting that may occur in the coming decades would result in greater quantities of meltwater entering rivers. The Indus River, which millions rely on for drinking water and agriculture, receives about 40 percent of its flow from glacial melt. An increase in meltwater could augment the risk of flooding of the Indus and other rivers in the region. 

Similarly, there may be a greater number of glacial outburst floods. Outburst floods occur when the moraine, or rock wall, which acts as a dam collapses. A collapse can take place for various reasons including if a great deal of water accumulates in a lake from a phenomenon like an increase in glacial melting. Depending on the size of the lake and downstream populations, among other factors, these floods have the potential to cause substantial damage. The largest of these floods have killed thousands of people, swept away homes, and even registered on seismometers in Nepal. 

Reflections in a glacial lake in Norway. 
(Source: Peter Nijenhuis/ Flickr)

Once glaciers have lost substantial amounts of mass and no longer have large quantities of water to release, the reverse will begin to cause problems: Rivers dependent on Himalayan glacial melt will diminish and drought may become more common downstream. This will negatively affect farming and development in the Himalayan region.

In both the short and long term, according Maurer and his colleagues, glacier melt in the Himalayas will have significant impacts on the livelihoods of those dependent on its towering peaks.

Read More on GlacierHub:

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Planning Meetings to Focus on Water Management in the Andean Region

The objective of a series of workshops on the Andean region is to generate learning, synergies, and develop inputs for the promotion of multipurpose projects (PMP) at the local-regional level that integrate management of water resources and risk management in a context of climate change. The workshops, titled “Exchange of experiences to promote multipurpose water projects as a measure of adaptation to climate change and risk management in mountain areas,” are organized by the Glaciers Project +.

Officials from Chile, Colombia, and Peru who work on issues related to climate change, energy, and water will meet to identify conditions for scaling up PMPs in the Andean Region and other territories. The workshops are expected to generate a roadmap for regional exchange on the PMPs.

Among the topics to be discussed during the two days of the workshops will be the problem of water in the Andean region, which will focus on the consensual construction of the multipurpose approach to adaptation to climate change, management of water resources and disaster risk in the framework of the NDCs. Discussions will also occur focusing on implementing PMP initiatives.

The workshops will be held in the cities of Bogotá and Santiago, the first of which will be held on April 9 and 10 in the Council Room of the Faculty of Rural and Environmental Studies of the Pontifical Javieriana University in Colombia. The workshop in Santiago will be held on May 2 and 3 at the facilities of the National Irrigation Commission.

This article originally appeared in Spanish on El Proyecto Glaciares.

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The Dead of Mount Everest Are Seeing the Light of Day

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The Dead of Mount Everest Are Seeing the Light of Day

Scaling Mount Everest is not for the faint-hearted. Located on the border of Nepal and Tibet, Mount Everest is the tallest mountain in the world, with a summit of 29,035 feet. Its extreme elevation not only increases the chances of incurring frostbite for climbers, but also reduces their oxygen intake, which has potentially significant health impacts like pulmonary edema and blood embolisms.

Avalanches and icefalls are also among some of the more life-threatening dangers associated with mountaineering, and these risks may become greater with increased warming. As of May 2017, the official number of fatalities recorded is over 270 according to World Atlas, with avalanches as the leading cause of mortality. Unfortunately not all the bodies of those who perished have been retrieved, due to the harsh environment. Many have vanished amid the ice and snow.

A view of Everest from Base Camp One on the Tibet side of the mountain, where some bodies are appearing. BBC reporting was done mostly from Nepal. (Source: Global Panorama/Flickr)

One of the perverse impacts of climate change, however, is that these corpses, scattered across the Everest slopes and long thought unretrievable, are now seeing the light of day due to rising temperatures and melting ice. Movement of the Khumbu glacier, where many of the dead bodies are appearing, has also contributed to the recent exposures.  Expedition operators and mountaineers have reported coming across more and more dead bodies that are being exposed because of fast glacial melting and reduced levels of ice, according to the BBC.

The discovery of these bodies is good news for families that may have lost a loved one on Everest, but it also presents some challenges for officials when deciding on proper response to the situation. According to the article, dealing with dead bodies, both logistically and emotionally, is not an easy task. Families who learn of recovery are also faced with a formidable series of administrative procedures. For Nepal, handling of the bodies requires government agency involvement, and according to the article, getting that involvement has been a challenge.

Recovering bodies is also very dangerous and costly. Ash Tshering Sherpa, former president of the Nepal Mountaineering Association, said that one of the most difficult recoveries was from nearby the mountain’s summit, where conditions are severe and unsafe for rescue teams. Experts estimate the cost to bring down dead bodies from the mountain, which could be between $40,000 and $80,000.

“Green Boots,” an Indian climber who died on the Northeast Ridge of Everest in 1996, has become a famous landmark for climbers. (Source: Maxwelljo40/Wikimedia Commons)

Sherry Ortner, a distinguished professor of anthropology at UCLA and author of Life and Death on Mt. Everest, said mountaineering practices in the Himalayas have changed dramatically over the years. Decades ago, Sherpas never climbed Everest because they believed certain gods lived there, and scaling the mountain was seen as a religious offence. However, mountaineering and assisting climbers has become a part of Sherpa economy today.

She also told us that although finding dead bodies on Everest is nothing new, the issue now is the quantity of bodies, and how to handle the bodies with respect. “On the one hand, recovering bodies is very dangerous and difficult, and Sherpas risk their lives recovering dead bodies,” Ortner said. “On the other hand, the mountaineering practice is important for the economy, and some may be willing to recover a body for the income.”

The families want the bodies back and treated with respect, and the Sherpas would never treat the bodies with disrespect, added Ortner. The article points out that some bodies serve as landmarks for mountaineers, which may be disrespectful to the body and the families. Proper treatment of one who has passed varies from culture to culture. As Buddhists, Sherpas view cremation as the most respectful, and westerners may want to bury their dead.

Mountaineers often climb in groups for safety and support, sometimes accompanied by a member, or members, of the Sherpa community. (Source: Mark Horrell/Flickr)

Pasang Yangjee Sherpa, affiliated with the South Asia Center of University of Washington, shared similar sentiments. Sherpa also recently commented on the issue on a BBC Sounds program. She said the news was not particularly shocking, as the Sherpas have known about the bodies and melting snow for years. However, it’s starting a fresh conversation about proper management and disposal of the dead bodies from the mountain, and it calls out authorities to act.

Sherpa added that it’s important to remember Mount Everest holds a place in Sherpa religion—the Tibetan Buddhist goddess Miyo Langsangma resides there. “The issue here is that the dead bodies should be handled with care and respect each of them deserves to maintain the sanctity of the mountain,” she said. Sherpa also said that to the mountaineers, the bodies are more than just landmarks, and a serious mountaineer understands the dedication and sacrifice that comes along with the climb.

“For them [mountaineers], dead bodies tell stories of ambitions and accomplishments. They also remind them of the risks involved” said Sherpa.

May this news serve as a reminder to brave mountaineers to prepare and take proper precaution on their journeys to the top of Everest.

Read More on GlacierHub:

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The New Science Editors of the Journal of Glaciology

The world’s glaciers, many of which have been around for millions of years, are in danger. Glaciers today are retreating faster than ever recorded. Some glaciers in tropical regions are on the verge of disappearing in the coming decades. Climate scientists and glaciologists are on the frontlines of understanding how climate change is threatings iconic glaciers, impacting tourism, ecosystems, and communities dependant on glaciers for water.

The Journal of Glaciology has recently brought on several new science editors. Although the journal is now over 70 years old, it’s gained importance and readership over the years as awareness of climate change has grown. The journal and its editors cover mostly the natural sciences such as chemistry, biology, and physics as well as the impacts of climate change on human societies.

GlacierHub interviewed several of the journal’s incoming authors. They come from a wide variety of scientific backgrounds, from a focus on the Greenland ice sheets to the glaciers and water cycle of the Himalayas. Experts told us about their goals for working with the journal and their expectations for the future of the field of glaciology and climate science. 

Karen Cameron

Karen Cameron (Source: Aberystwyth University)

Karen Cameron is research fellow at Aberystwyth University in the United Kingdom. As a glacial microbial ecologist, she studies the effects of microbiota on glacier surfaces, and how they may contribute to ice darkening, a driver of glacier melt. Cameron is an expert on Greenland ice sheets. In one of her most recent studies, she and other researchers examined the potential expansion of Greenland’s “dark zone,” an area of the ice sheet covered in dust, black carbon, and pigmented algae.

“I look forward to contributing towards the scientific community by helping to shape and encourage outputs relating to the ecology of glacial environments. Over the coming years, there should be many exciting developments in this field. For example, I expect to see a surge in reports relating to the effect of microbial communities on reducing albedo (surface reflectivity), which enhances glacial and sea ice melt. I also expect to see more robust estimations of the contributions that glacial and permafrost microbial communities make to current and future methane budgets. Similarly, investigations into the role of microbial communities in cycling valuable nutrients and making them available to downstream ecosystems, will likely feature. Finally, there should be exciting developments in the exploration of cryospheric organisms for potential drug development and biotechnological usage.”

Shad O’Neel

Shad O’Neel (Source: USGS.gov)

Shad O’Neel is a research geophysicist at the Alaska Science Center. His area of expertise includes glacier and ice sheet contributions to sea level rise, which is consequential to millions of people living along coastlines experience more frequent flooding. O’Neel also examines seismic activity at glaciers and iceberg calving events, which presents a considerable environmental hazard. Some of his more recent work focused on river discharge in subarctic Alaska suggests a link between glacier retreat, aquifer recharge, and lowland river discharge.

“I was brought on to the editorial staff to work on papers related to mountain glaciers due to my background working on them. My goal is to help promote high-quality papers related to processes and changes ongoing across Earth’s mountain glaciers. In particular, I am interested in mass balance. At the basin scale, emerging methods (e.g. ground penetrating radar) show potential to reduce uncertainties in mass change. How we aggregate observations and use them to constrain regional mass balance estimates and/or inform models is another topic I hope passes through my Journal of Glaciology inbox.”

Iestyn Barr

Iestyn Barr (Source: Manchester Metropolican University)

Iestyn Barr specializes in applications of remote sensing, GIS, and modeling in high-latitude environments. As a senior lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University, he instructs courses in glacial systems and geomorphological processes. His most recent publication compares effects of soil erosion and flooding from 1.5 degrees Celsius warming versus 2°C. Much of Barr’s previous research assesses historic glacial morphology and retreat, with substantial work done on the history, dimensions, and dynamics of the glaciers in Kamchatka, Russia. 

“My goal in working for the journal is to promote glaciology in general, and particularly to continue the excellent (and long running) success of the Journal of Glaciology. One of my particular areas of interest is looking at interactions between volcanoes and glaciers (‘glaciovolcanism’). Specifically, looking at volcanic impacts on glacier dimensions and dynamics; using glacio-volcanic landforms to reconstruct past glaciers; and considering the possibility that future glacier retreat might not only be driven by, but also force, volcanic activity.”

Argha Banerjee

Argha Banerjee (Source: IISER Pune)

Argha Banerjee is a glaciologist knowledgeable in the Himalayan glaciers. He is a professor of earth and climate sciences at the Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Pune. In a recent study, Banerjee, along with three other researchers, evaluated the effects of avalanches on mass balance in glaciers. They developed methods to attempt to quantify net avalanche contributions to mass balance, a feat which hasn’t been done before, and applied their methods to three Himalayan glaciers.

“My academic and personal experience over the past few years have made me appreciate the strong connections that Himalayan glaciers share with Himalayan climate, water cycle, landscape evolution, ecology, and so on. To be able to explore these connections is what makes Himalayan glaciology fascinating to me. I would love see more articles related to Himalayan climate, hydrology, and geomorphology in the journal. More studies of Himalayan snow/precipitation processes over all scales, too. I think we need to do a bit more about some of these gap areas to gain more confidence on the projections that we are making.”

Elisabeth Isaksson

Elisabeth Isaksson (Source: Elisabeth Isaksson)

Elisabeth Isaksson studies climate history and variability through analyzing ice cores in the Arctic and Antarctic. She is a senior research scientists at the Norwegian Polar Institute. Isaksson is also interested in organic contaminant pollution in snow and ice from Svalbard. Some of her previous work looks at amplified levels of black carbon in the Arctic and the impacts from climate change in the region. In places like Tibet and the Arctic, black carbon concentrations on glaciers are becoming well understood by scientists to be a strong force for increased retreat and melt.

“In the three decades that have passed since I started working with polar glaciers, the situation and challenges related to glaciology have indeed changed a lot. Back in the 1980s, we just started looking for signs of any changes that could be related to global climate warming in the Antarctic; now the signs are obvious, and things are changing rapidly. To make progress and move science forward I think that we need to find new ways of working together across scientific disciplines, which at times can be time-consuming and challenging because of our traditions in scientific training. There are also new scientific areas related to melting glaciers that are particularly interesting; one example is biological production (bacterial biomass, for instance) both on melting glaciers and at glacier fronts. As a scientific editor for an important glaciological journal I am looking forward to learn more about these research fields.”

Read More at GlacierHub: 

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Roundup: Lichen Colonization, Mercury Contamination, and Double Exposure

In this week’s Roundup, read about lichen colonization on Svalbard’s glaciers, mercury inputs from glacial rivers in High Arctic Canada, and the impact of both climate change and globalization on a small village in the Indian Himalayas.

Lichen Colonization on Svalbard’s Glaciers

From Acta Societatis Botanicorum Poloniae: “The high number of lichen species that were new to Svalbard indicates the need for further research on the biodiversity of lichens in the Arctic. In particular, the glacier forelands deserve attention if further warming of the climate continues, as species sensitive to competition from vascular plants will move into habitats in the vicinity of glaciers.”

Read more here.

Lichen in Svalbard on GlacierHub
A colony of Lichen in Svalbard (Source: lnk75/Flickr).

Mercury Contamination in High Arctic Canada

From Environmental Science & Technology: “Glacial rivers were the most important source of MeHg and THg to Lake Hazen, accounting for up to 53% and 94% of the inputs, respectively. However, due to the MeHg and THg being primarily particle-bound, Lake Hazen was an annual MeHg and THg sink…This study highlights the potential for increases in mercury inputs to arctic ecosystems downstream of glaciers despite recent reductions in global mercury emissions.”

For more detail, click here to read GlacierHub’s recent post regarding this study.

Henrietta Nesmith glacier Lake Hazen on GlacierHub
A glacial river from the Henrietta Nesmith glacier, which flows into Lake Hazen (Source: Judith Slein/Flickr).

“Double Exposure” in Indian Himalayan Communities

From Environmental Science & Policy: “This study uses a living with approach to explore how change and development was experienced by a small agricultural community in the Indian Himalayas. The findings reveal ‘double exposure’ to an increasingly deficient water supply, and aspects of globalisation.”

Read more here.

village in Indian Himalayas on GlacierHub
A small village, nestled within the Indian Himalayas (Source: K/Flickr).

 

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A Survey of the UNESCO Andean Glacier Water Atlas

UNESCO recently published a report which addresses the effects of global warming on the glaciers of the Andes. The Andean Glacier and Water Atlas examines the changing climate patterns across western South America, as well the historical and projected rates of retreat of important glaciers in the region. Increased melting will impact societies reliant on glaciers for water resources. The eventual loss of glaciers presents a challenge for countries to address.

An aerial view of the Ojo del Albino glacier in Argentina (Source: Andrew Shiva/Wikimedia Commons)

The Andes are the longest continental mountain range in the world, spanning the western edge of South America through several countries. These mountains are considered to be the water towers for the surrounding populations. They provide water to about 75 million people living within the Andes region and 20 million downstream along surrounding rivers. The Andes continue to have a significant influence on local cultures and economies. The impending loss of these glaciers may cripple dependent communities, industries, and various sectors across South America.  

Key Messages and Future Projections

The atlas identifies several key messages essential for discerning the changes in the Andes. Projections indicate that temperatures in the tropical Andes could increase between 2°C and 5°C by the end of the 21st century. The recent IPCC SR1.5 report emphasized the devastating effects of just 1°C of warming, such as extended periods of drought and extreme global heat events. The Andes will likely experience increasingly hotter years with warming driving further glacier retreat.

The report notes that changes in precipitation are harder to project than temperature changes. Nonetheless it presents serious concerns for some regions across the Andes. The atlas refers to the IPCC for precipitation projections. In the southern Andes region, precipitation will greatly decrease by the end of the century, including Chile and Argentina in particular. These regions will likely experience drought events, and loss of glaciers may be devastating to the environment and its people.

Scientists have also observed rapid retreat in glaciers in the tropical Andes, as well as lower-altitude glaciers. According to the atlas, one glacier which remains in Venezuela will likely disappear by 2021. Many large tropical glaciers exist in Peru, including Quelccaya Ice Cap, which may disappear by 2050 at the current rate of warming. Glaciers are also quickly retreating in Bolivia, Chile, and Argentina. This retreat and volume loss of glaciers is “locked in,”and glaciers will continue to retreat no matter what. Even with a moderate level of emissions, the IPCC projects that barely a fifth of the glaciers will remain by the end of the century, with some reduced to barely 3 percent of their current size.

Pico Humboldt, the second highest peak in Venezuela, is home to the country’s last glacier (Source: Okty/Wikimedia Commons)

Impacts of Retreating Glaciers

The loss of glaciers and glacial meltwater is inevitable. As warming continues, a majority of glaciers will soon experience “peak water” (which occurs when melting exceeds new mass accumulated by snowfall), likely within the next 20 years. Many tropical Andes glaciers already reached peak water in the 1980s and have been outputting less water since. Although many countries will benefit from peak water, the aftereffects of less meltwater outflow will heavily strain the available water supply.

Bolívar Cáceres, a specialist of the tropical Andes who worked on the atlas, told GlacierHub about some of the effects of glacier retreat and possible methods for adapting to water scarcity. “One of the indirect effects of long-term melting in communities is the reduction of visitors. Since glaciers no longer exist in some places or become very difficult to climb, tourists are currently opting out and most likely will go to other places in the future,” he said. This will affect local economies that depend on tourism flow and the resources generated. As for adaptation, Cáceres believes that promoting technologies in agriculture and livestock areas to better manage water resources is essential for sustainability.

Water quality will also be affected by the loss of glaciers. Bryan Mark, an expert on Andes and Peruvian glaciers, added: “Recently glacier-free landscapes feature lots of unconsolidated materials that tend to result in more sediment laden, erosive, and ‘flashy’ discharge streams.'” Sediment pollution presents a number of problems for the water supply, including degrading the quality of drinking water for locals and their livestock. Mark also highlighted the importance of diversifying water reservoir resources, utilizing groundwater, small dams, and precipitation capture as alternate water resources.

Vibrant houses and high-rises in the Andean city of La Paz, Bolivia (Source: Matthew Straubmuller/Flickr)

Efficacy and Practicality of Policy Recommendations

The atlas examines the significance of glacier retreat on communities. It provides policy recommendations for countries to sustainably secure future water availability. Some examples include implementing preventative measures for natural glacier-related hazards and developing climate services for water resource management. Although these recommendations are intended to provide direction towards sustainable water supply management, there are concerns of clarity, implementation, and effectiveness of these policies.

Dirk Hoffmann, an expert on glaciers in high mountain ecosystems, commented on the effectiveness of the policy recommendations on communities. “The policy recommendations are all very interesting, but on the whole seem to be somewhat too general as to be useful to specific decision maker,” he said. Hoffmann views the recommendations as well intended and believes the atlas to be effective in raising awareness of these issues. In a practical sense, however, they are too far removed to help decision makers, he said. A clear indication as to whom these recommendations are directed towards would be beneficial.

Deeply entrenched valley below the tree line, with a small town at the river’s edge (Source: UNESCO)

Mark Carey, an expert of the Peruvian Andes, shared similar thoughts on the effectiveness of these recommendations. Carey stated that the lack of social science and humanities research on vulnerability and unequal impacts of shrinking glaciers is an issue. “Vulnerability is framed in ways to conceptualize homogenous ‘affected populations,’ such as those in agriculture or urban areas, rather than understanding the complicated social divisions and power imbalances embedded in the diverse social groups,” he said. Carey added that although the science is necessary, the complex human dimensions of climate change adaptation are essential.  

The Andean Glacier and Water Atlas recognizes the importance of improving interactions between science and policy, bringing awareness of key issues surrounding the loss of glaciers in the Andes. This is a major step towards successful adaptation; climate scientists, social scientists, and policymakers will need to collaborate to effectively allocate resources for sustainable management of the challenges associated with glacier retreat.

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Video of the Week: ‘Claim the Climate’ Protest in Belgium

This week’s video follows the commencement of the UN Climate Change Conference 2018, COP24. This year’s conference is located at Katowice, Poland. The conference, which takes place from 2-14 December, has definitely gotten many people riled up about climate change. Over 65,000 people came out for the “Claim the Climate” demonstration on Sunday, 2 December in Brussels, Belgium. Protestors marched through the Belgium capital toward the European Union headquarters, holding banners saying “Stop Climate Criminals” and “There is no Planet B.” As voiced in the video, they hope to raise awareness on the pressing concerns of climate change and put pressure on political leaders to take action.

Discover more glacier news at GlacierHub:

Are White Whales Resilient to Climate Change?

Then and Now: Understanding John Muir’s Ideology

A Glacial Escape: Connecting Past, Present & Future in the Novel “Antarctica”

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North of Nightfall: Glaciers, Mountain Biking and Climate Change

Just 11 degrees south of the North Pole, mountain bikers Darren Berrecloth, Carson Storch, Tom Van Steenbergen and Cam Zink cut through the ice to the glaciers of Axel Heiberg Island in Nunavut, Canada. Red Bull Media House’s recent film, “North of Nightfall,” follows their monumental journey through the quickly melting Arctic.

Around 2,000 glaciers have carved out massive slopes in the region. There is little to no vegetation; the area is particularly exciting— and dangerous— for mountain bikers with great peaks, long lines and essentially untouched terrain.

Isla Axel Heiberg (Source: RedBull Canada/Instagram).

Home to polar bears, Arctic wolves, narwhals and blue whales, the land has not been inhabited by humans since the Thule people. Ancestors of the Inuit, the Thule lived on the island for over 200 years. By the 1960s, a remote research station was established on the island to observe glaciers and study the impacts of climate change. Now there are no permanent residents, except for a few researchers, wildlife surveyors and other explorers who visit during the summer months when there is a short window (only about a month) of permitting weather.

The island has one way in and one way out. Small planes use the tundra for take-off and landing; there is no formal airport. Pilots must use an off-strip landing place. A plane dropped the athletes off with enough equipment for three weeks— food, bikes, camera gear, and anything else they would need to survive and ride.

The filmmakers used drone footage to capture the scenery of the Arctic and the skill of the biking. Hiking up the mountain with the weight of their bikes, the athletes turn, speeding down rocky, thousand-foot cliffs. They fly through the air, twisting, turning and throwing tricks. The intensity of these tricks sends shivers down the spine. Seeing men suspended in mid-air, seemingly weightless, not even holding on to the handlebars, is awe-inspiring.

Axel Heiberg
Darren Berrecloth (Source: Outdoor Magazin/Instagram).

With a hospital more than 10 hours away, doctor Clark Lewish was in charge of safety and all things medical. He brought a fully-packed first-aid kit including a defibrillator, oxygen supply, syringes, equipment for IVs, gauze (of course), bandages and antiseptic. Thankfully, most of the equipment was never used. However, at one point, Lewish did have to pop Zink’s shoulder back into place.

Other members of the expedition were crew personnel including the expedition’s leader Françoise Gervais, guide and Inuit member Apak Taqtu, and glacial researcher Laura Thomson.

A Nunatsiaq Newspaper, ‘Nunatsiaq News,’ express concern with Red Bull filming in this location. The island is a rich fossil site and there are in fact archeology sites within 25 kilometers of the camp, but it is the expedition leaders duty to ensure that the group does not infringe on these sites. Though there is a guide leader, there is concern about garbage being left behind and disturbance of the land.

The film aims to increase awareness of climate change in the Northern Arctic by showing the audience the sensitive habitat. The hope is that when people see the vastness of the Arctic, they will be moved to protect and preserve it.

“The goal isn’t to live forever, the goal is to create something that will,” a quote from Chuck Palahniuk, begins the film. These words can be applied to the greater sport of mountain biking and achievement, as well as to the legacy humans leave behind.

Glacial retreat in this area has catalyzed over the last fifty years due to anthropogenic warming. Even if humans were to completely stop emissions today, our world would still heat by about 0.6 degrees Celsius, causing the glaciers to continue to retreat. In addition, the current ice melt in the region has opened alternate (and shorter) shipping routes for cargo ships that would have otherwise relied on the Panama Canal. This Northern Sea Route would create a shorter shipping passage between Japan and Northern Europe. Ship access and the continued ice melt threatens a variety of species that have evolved for tens of thousands of years in harsh Arctic climates.

Darren Berrecloth (Source: Blake Jorgenson/Instagram).

By reflecting on the human influence on the region, the filmmakers shift the viewers’ attention inward to reflect upon individual actions and what can be done to preserve and protect this inspiring place. Allowing people to see the wonder of the Arctic and understand the sensitivity of the habitat, instills hope that humans will be more invested to protect it. Take a look at the film, and decide for yourself.

 

 

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2018: An Exceptional Year of Losses for Swiss Glaciers

In 2018, Swiss glaciers lost over 2.5 percent of their overall volume, reported the Swiss Academy of Sciences in a recent press release. This corresponds to 1.4 billion cubic meters of ice that melted from Switzerland’s glaciers in just one year.

Swiss glaciers: Findelen Glacier 2018 on GlacierHub
The Findelen Glacier, in the Monte Rosa region of southern Valais, Switzerland. Only glaciers at the highest altitudes (over 2000m) had snow thickness losses of less than one meter (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

However, this year of exceptional melting actually began with a rather promising winter season. The 2017-2018 winter commenced earlier than expected in Switzerland, starting in the first days of November and continuing through December with reported snowfall above average levels. January also saw higher temperatures than normal, as well increased precipitation.

While snow depth below 1000m elevation was around half the expected average by January, snow above 2000m elevation was still twice the expected average in March, representing the highest snow levels seen in the past 20 years.

GlacierHub interviewed the author of the press release, Matthias Huss, who said, “After the winter measurements in April and May, we actually thought that this might be a good year for the glaciers at last.” Huss is also the leader of the Swiss Glacier Monitoring Network (GLAMOS) and a glaciologist at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Zurich, Switzerland.

Swiss glaciers: rivers of glacial melt at Findelen Glacier 2018 on GlacierHub
On the Findelen Glacier, even above 3000m elevation, rivers of glacial melt flowed well into September (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

However, both April and May were hot and dry, decreasing snow at altitude to relatively normal levels. Then, the months from April to September were characterized by drought conditions and high temperatures, making it the third-hottest and overall driest summer on record.

“This is probably the largest annual shrinkage since the mega-heatwave of 2003,” said Martin Beniston, an honorary professor and former director of the Institute for Environmental Sciences at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, in an interview with GlacierHub.

Both Beniston and Huss told GlacierHub that, had it not been for this snow-rich winter, Switzerland’s glaciers would have faced even more extreme losses. Indeed, the above-average quantities of snow in the Alps during winter 2017-2018 helped offset some loss of ice this summer.

In an interview with GlacierHub, Mauri Pelto, a glaciologist at Nichols College and the director of the North Cascades Glacier Climate Project commented on the implications of 2018’s extreme melting. “The significance of a big year of melt followed by another is there will be no comparable rebound,” he said.

Swiss glaciers: Pizol Glacier in 2006 and 2018 reveals massive glacial retreat on GlacierHub
A comparison of the Pizol Glacier in 2006 to 2018, revealing massive glacial retreat and ice covered in debris (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

Wilfried Haeberli, a glaciologist and professor emeritus at the University of Zurich, Switzerland, put this year’s loss in perspective. “Since the turn of the century the average loss rate of all glaciers in the Alps can be estimated at around 1-2 percent per year. The loss rate of 2018 is roughly twice this amount,” he noted in an interview with GlacierHub. Together in the last 10 years, Swiss glaciers have lost one-fifth of their volume, which is enough to cover the entirety of Switzerland with 25 cm of water

While certainly extreme, losing 2.5 percent of glacial volume in one year is not unprecedented. Years with observations of “extreme” glacier melt are becoming both more frequent and more severe. Huss recalled the years 2015 and 2017, when Swiss glaciers lost comparable amounts of ice, saying, “2018 was not absolutely exceptional, in terms of the last decade. And this is of course the actually worrying news.”

Pelto, Beniston, and Haeberli echoed similar sentiments, saying that the observed losses for Swiss glaciers were, “exceptional but not unusual,” and that 2018 was, “hardly a surprise,” but instead, “part of a long-term development, which is in agreement with robust results from model simulations about global warming and glacier vanishing,” respectively.   

On a global scale, glaciated areas in several other countries saw noticeably higher snowlines and rapid volume loss due to melting in 2018. Some notable examples of this widespread glacial retreat include: the Lowell Glacier in Yukon, Canada; the Taku Glacier in Alaska, U.S.; the Chubda, Angge, and Bailang Glaciers along the Bhutan-China border; and the Inostrantsev and Pavlova Glaciers in Novaya Zemlya, off the coast of northern Russia.

Swiss glaciers: Lake at the tongue of the Rhone Glacier on GlacierHub
The Rhone Glacier developed a lake at its tongue again in 2018, due to the exceptional melting (Source: Matthias Huss/Swiss Academy of Sciences).

“The fact that high snowlines and mass balance loss are affecting glaciers in every corner of the world indicates that this is not a regional change, but that global climate change is the driver,” said Pelto. 

Huss also pointed out the difficulty of deducing whether extreme conditions in the past few years is due to weather variability, or whether we are to experience these extremes as our new normal. However, noting that the volume loss for Swiss glaciers in the past decade was more than expected based on projected scenarios for the 21st century, he is certain that, “if it is the latter, then we might expect Swiss glaciers to disappear even earlier than expected.”

According to Beniston, since the 3rd Assessment Report of the IPCC in 2001, projections have estimated that at the current rate of climate change, glaciers will decline by anywhere from 50 to 90 percent by 2100. “[This year] provides a measure of things to come,” he said, “in the sense that by the second half of the 21st century, what are considered extreme summers today (like 2018) will become average summers.”

Ultimately, Haeberli told GlacierHub he sees these striking glacier mass losses as “writing on the wall,” indicating that opportunities for action to reduce impacts of global warming are now being lost. He closed his comments by calling upon the necessity of “rapid deceleration” of greenhouse gas emissions in order to limit negative effects on living conditions on Earth and allow us more time to “develop well-reflected sustainable adaptation strategies.”

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Video of the Week: Comments from IPCC Chair on SR1.5

This week’s Video of the Week follows the recent release of the IPCC’s special report, SR1.5, on warming impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius. This short but meaningful video features comments from head of IPCC Hoesung Lee, regarding the observable effects of climate change on societies and ecosystems. SR1.5 urges immediate global response to drastically reduce emissions that contribute to global warming, highlighting the importance of reaching global “net zero” emissions by 2050. The report also suggests strategies for mitigating pathways and transitioning into more sustainable human and environmental systems through adjustments in sectors such as energy, agriculture and infrastructure, to name a few.

Visit the IPCC website for the full report, which includes the Summary for Policymakers and the official press release from Incheon, Republic of Korea. Also, be sure to check out last week’s post on SR1.5 by GlacierHub editor Ben Orlove.

Read more glacier news here:

A Classic Whodunit: Industrial Soot, Volcanoes, and Europe’s Shrinking Glaciers

What An Antarctic Island Tells Us about Mars

Brady Glacier, Alaska Nunatak Expansion and High Snowline 2018

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India’s Glaciers Help Shape Climate Change Policy

A paper set to be published in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources takes a critical view of the breadth of academic literature on climate change policy and politics in India. It evaluates not only the ideas and knowledge regarding climate change, but also recent shifts in domestic and international governance and policy. The authors underscore the ways that glaciers have played a role in shaping the trajectory of climate change responses in India.

Himalayan Glaciers in India as seen from the International Space Station (Source: Jason Betzner/Flickr).

India has a significant stake in the climate change arena with about 9,000 glaciers within its boundaries. In fact, it was recently named the most vulnerable country to climate change, in a report by HSBC bank earlier this year.

The Himalayan region has millions of people that reside in India and in the neighboring countries of Nepal, Bhutan and Pakistan. The residents depend on the glacial meltwater that sources rivers for drinking water, electricity generation, and irrigation. Snowfall from the monsoon season is able to replenish the glaciers to create the foundation for this hydrological system, but climate change disrupts this pattern and dramatically increases the vulnerability of all who depend on it.

India’s scientific community has closely studied monsoons and glacial melt. In this way, they have helped usher initial attention toward climate change action among the public and policy makers. However, this attention has not been without controversy.

The Himalayan glaciers were the subject of heated debate after the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) Fourth Assessment Report claimed that they would completely disappear by 2035. This claim was later corrected after it was determined to be incorrect. While Himalayan glacier retreat may be substantial by the end of the century, models show that the glaciers will not completely disappear.

The issue of glacial melt is just one of the many factors that raised the importance of climate change policy action in India, which the paper highlights as shifting substantially over time.

Initially, India built its international negotiation strategy on a pillar of climate equity, bridging rich and poor nations. But the paper notes that the meaning of this term has broadened over time “to include not only disparities among nations, but also disparities within India and the impacts of climate change on vulnerable populations.”

Although emphasis remains on the developed nation’s obligation to take responsibility for its contribution to climate change, India has stated its own national contribution to mitigation.

Its forest sequestration pledge to increase forest cover came with Indian advocacy for the REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) program, for example. This rewards increased sequestration of carbon, not just reduced deforestation, and was eventually adopted in Bali during the UNFCCC’s 15th Conference of the Parties.

The Institutional Structure of India’s Climate Governance (as on March 2018) that outlines the period in which engagement with climate change began. Abbreviations are offered in the journal article (Source: Annual Review of Environment and Resources).

 

Despite India’s push toward forest expansion, the paper emphasizes the remaining global concern over the country’s future role in carbon emissions, including black carbon, which is a significant factor in the melting of the Himalayan glaciers.

The literature has provided a range for future carbon emissions that is largely dependent on India’s energy future. Future demand and supply will shape how India will be able to contribute to global mitigation efforts, and the outcome of this is one of the main issues the paper discusses.

“India has made significant progress in mitigation measures but has not been able to take sufficient steps for including adaptation measures in its development policies,” Sumit Vij, a Ph.D. candidate researching public administration and policy at Wageningen University in the Netherlands, told GlacierHub.

The Bhagirathi River in the town of Gangotri, Uttarakhand, India at an elevation of 3,100 meters (Source: Atarax42/Wikimedia Commons).

This is a major problem for the vulnerable country, especially for those living in the Himalayan region, where coordinated efforts that work on the ecosystem level could be of benefit.

“The adaptation strategies are focused toward the local level. There has been no focus on transboundary or regional level adaptation measures from India,” Vij continued.

Of the adaptation policies that currently exist, they have been overly focused on the short-term, which inclines them “toward development or business-as-usual,” according to Vij.

“Conceptually, it makes sense that adaptation policies focus on long-term impacts of climate change, rather than on short-term development interventions,” he said.

Nevertheless, India has worked to strengthen its commitment to climate change, which represents a move in the right direction for the country. “However, given the overhang of immediate development challenges, climate change can only be salient to politics and governance if a robust analytical framework is developed to integrate climate considerations alongside and interwoven with pressing development challenges,” concludes the paper. This will remain the next frontier for future climate change research and responses in India.

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